17

This is the setting:

  • I'm with my 6-7 years old son in a dinosaur park (in a day not busy at all, so he will not behave as a good boy just because there's people around him who could make him feel ashamed)
  • my son starts kicking a dinosaur sculputure
  • I tell my son he should not do that
  • he asks why

What are the pros and cons of the following answers, if the target is helping the child develop in the right direction (I hope we agree that not kicking the dinosaur is the right thing to do)? Most importantly, I'm interested in the negative effects of answer 1.

  1. "The watchmen will reprimand you if he sees you"
  2. "Because I say so"
  3. "Because I will beat you"
  4. "Because other kids like you have right to ... and you should respect ..."

I've sorted them from the most detrimental to the most effective based on my personal experience (as a son, not as a parent), however I'm asking this question because I'd like to find some authoritative material about this specific topic (telling a child You shouldn't behave like this because XYZ).

Edited to add: I am not a parent (of any child), just in case someone doesn't see the the "as a son, not as a parent" part.

Why am I asking this question?

Because I seen, for real, a parent telling the child the answer 1 below, which drove me crazy.

15
  • 27
    Threatening with violence is obviously child abuse so I hope that's all that needs to be said regarding #3.
    – dxh
    Jan 7 at 19:03
  • 7
    @dxh I don't agree but ok.
    – Enlico
    Jan 7 at 19:05
  • 7
    I'd like to suggest the fifth option "Because it's bad manners to kick things that are not meant for kicking." If he asks why, you can elaborate both on (1) why kicking things that are not meant for kicking is considered bad manners (they can break, it shows disrespect to the owner, etc.) and (2) why "good manners" (= a set of socially agreed norms) makes living together as a group of people easier. Note that none of this is specific to dinosaurs or public places, which is a good thing.
    – Heinzi
    Jan 8 at 9:01
  • 24
    None of those reasons really get to the heart of why it's bad to vandalise something, which is because it will break sooner and then no-one (including the person who broke it) gets to use it or it leaves it in a state where it's unpleasant to look at or interact with (for some, at least), until someone spends money and time to replace it or clean it up. Not that I can really say how effective this argument would be for a child though (and the argument also doesn't work for a lot of adults, specifically those that are okay with vandalising things).
    – NotThatGuy
    Jan 8 at 10:34
  • 3
    What do you do when you are not around to apply #2 and #3? While brute force can make them obedient with you around, it doesn't instil an internal behaviour and attitude that remains when you're not there. It may end up working against you. ("Parent is not here so I can do what I want").
    – stan
    Jan 8 at 10:38

11 Answers 11

53

Of all your suggestions, only one really says “it’s not ok to kick the dinosaurs”. The other are sending a different message, which can be summed up as

Don’t do it when [some else with more power] sees it, because there may be undesirable consequences.

The logical next step for some clever kids is to do exactly what you don’t want them to do the moment they are unsupervised. As you probably realize that there’s no feasible way to supervise them 24/7 for the next decades, you need a different approach, you want to teach values. The goal is to get them to behave because they have the intrinsic motivation to do so - you’ll reap the benefits not just at the next trip to the dinosaur park, but hopefully in the next years as well.

This will also help if you don’t want to go through the process of explaining which individual actions are ok or not. If kicking the brachiosaurus is forbidden, I kick the stegosaurus instead? How about the trash can? The neighbor’s cat? See the problem?

And teaching values, may it be your personal values or what your social context considers as such, will require age-appropriate explanations. That may be your last bullet point (“we respect that other kids want to play with an undamaged dinosaur”) or whatever phrasing fits.

It’s a very good exercise to think about answers to the inevitable “why not?” questions for scenarios like this one - you’ll learn a lot about yourself. Especially if you can’t find a reason.

5
  • Are you implying that the 3 wrong ways are all equally wrong? Personally, even though I've almost always(¹) been told you shouldn't because..., I'm sure there are things that I've learned via because I say so, not necessarily because the explanation was deferred (at that moment there was probably just not time to explain), but because I've later learned the true reason why my father said so, by experience, and probably exactly because of (¹). On the other hand, I've never been told because the warden punishes you, hence I've never thought that some "external" rule was "evil".
    – Enlico
    Jan 7 at 20:29
  • 1
    Whereas so often I see people, youngsters included, break the rules as soon as "nobody is watching", which to me looks the undeniable consequence of answer #1 in my question.
    – Enlico
    Jan 7 at 20:31
  • 5
    I think questioning the set of values by consciously going against them is a normal behavior in times like puberty. The key bit is how bad and how much. And how quickly is the phase over.
    – Stephie
    Jan 7 at 20:36
  • 1
    And I am not sure whether one can really rate the “wrongness”, there’s a certain degree of variance in how an individual child will perceive it and react.
    – Stephie
    Jan 7 at 20:40
  • 2
    @Enlico: I think Stephie's point is that both (2) and (3) are almost as bad as (1) because they only can be applied if someone knows what they did wrong. The question you need to ask yourself is not "How do I correct behaviour X?" but rather "Why is behaviour X wrong?" and "Why should anyone share my judgement of right and wrong regarding X?".
    – user21820
    Jan 9 at 9:31
27

Something that hasn't been addressed is why the child is kicking the dinosaur.

  • They are bored with the park or this exhibit ("Hey, don't damage the exhibits. If you're bored let's go and see the XYZ.")

  • They are imagining fighting a dinosaur (Acknowledge the story. Compliment their bravery etc. Engage the imagination by talking about fighting a real dinosaur. Point out as a side issue that "It's a good thing this isn't a real dinosaur but let's be careful, it's only a model and we don't want to break it.")

  • They are trying to get a reaction. ("Come on dinosaur killer! Let's not damage the exhibits we'll be in big trouble.")

Very often using "we" is less accusatory than "you".

Source: My mother who would always include children by using "we" so they felt she was on their side rather than against them.

2
  • 3
    +1 for the "we" inclusion! It certainly seems of great importance to take on and understand kids' side of the story (whether they be yours or in your care), and in turn, this seems to open the idea that their actions have an affect on their shared relationship for their guardians. One they should try and build and improve (at least until they're a teenager).
    – ti7
    Jan 10 at 1:48
  • 1
    I also +1 for "we", I've found that "In our family we don't (hit | throw toys at the tv | tease the pets)" is so much more peaceful and effective than "You don't" or "You can't".
    – Meg
    Jan 12 at 14:36
21

Just to add to what other posters have said, this can be a good time to give a child a lesson in empathy as well. Something like "Well, that dinosaur belongs to someone. Would you like it if someone kicked your <favourite toy, games console, etc>?".

They would most likely say no, so then the obvious next question is "Why not?"

2
  • I wish I could upvote this again. Teaching empathy (what we used to call the Golden Rule) should be the starting point for ethical discussions. If the child doesn't like it when other people kick his things, he should understand why the people who own the dinosaurs won't like him to kick them. Jan 8 at 16:40
  • 4
    Came here to look for this reply specifically. "Because it's not yours" always worked for my kiddo. Children who grok the concept of ownership will intuitively understand.
    – adsmith
    Jan 8 at 21:23
18

Quietly and politely, tell the child to please not kick the dino and give the best possible (age-appropriate) reason. Something like "Please don't kick the dino. The dinos in the park are not for kicking. If other kids start kicking them, the dinos will fall apart and then next time we come to the park, there will be nothing to play with."

Regarding this reason: "The watchmen will reprimand you if he sees you": It may be effective in the short term, but may not necessarily be what you want in the long term in your children. What if there is no one watching? Many things should probably be still off limits, such as starting a fight, stealing, or damaging other people's property. In my view, kicking the dino falls into the latter category, namely wrong whether or not there is anybody watching.

REFERENCES:

“Because I said so” is not a reason at all; it’s an appeal to brute force and a way of teaching children to rely on it themselves. It’s better not only to avoid that phrase but to make a point of offering reasons. Most of our requests can be explained even to two-year-olds in words they can at least partly grasp. (“Your brother’s waiting for us to pick him up at school; if we don’t go get him now, he won’t know where we are and he’ll be sad.”) Offering explanations doesn’t guarantee that a child will cheerfully accept our demands—just as it wouldn’t always work if someone were telling us we had to do this, or couldn’t do that—but it makes acceptance a lot more likely. In any case, people of any age are entitled to a reason when someone is limiting their options.

(pp. 182-183)

Alfie Kohn (2005) Unconditional Parenting: Moving From Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books, New York, NY: https://www.amazon.com/Unconditional-Parenting-Moving-Rewards-Punishments/dp/0743487478/

0
9

Why not simply tell him the true reason?

"You shouldn't damage the thing because it isn't yours."

Because it is the correct and logical answer, this one is more likely to work than the others and get the kid to learn something useful.

Then you could explain using simple examples: "If you have a toy you don't like, maybe you want to break it or throw it away, and you can do that because it's your toy, which means it's your choice. Of course if you break it, then you will no longer have the toy, so you might regret it later if you change your mind, but it was your choice. Now, if some other kid breaks your favorite toy and laughs at you, then you wouldn't like that, because it's your toy, not his."

Obviously if you teach property rights to a kid, the next time you tell them to clean their room he'll tell you "it's my room." That could also be an interesting learning opportunity though...

14
  • No, this is neither correct nor logical.
    – zugzwang
    Jan 22 at 1:25
  • Please explain wny.
    – bobflux
    Jan 22 at 6:38
  • Respecting ownership is the morally correct thing to do, but ownership is not the determining factor, or the source of moral value. It is one way of determining who has the legal right to preside over the disposal of the property. It grants authority, and is merely an extension of the "Because I say so" argument. This entirely avoids the relevant moral concerns (damage is done, harm is done, others cannot enjoy the feature, etc.).
    – zugzwang
    Jan 22 at 17:47
  • ... I think a good illustration is asking whether or not it would be right for the owner to do the same thing. having the authority to do a thing does not make it right, even if it makes it legal. Any action with moral concerns that are predicated on ownership need to be justified. My house needs significant repairs, so I decided to tear it down an rebuild. Justified and legal. Defacing it is wrong regardless of ownership.
    – zugzwang
    Jan 22 at 17:51
  • 1
    This is completely wrong. Are you a socialist? Or worse, utilitarian?
    – bobflux
    Jan 30 at 22:10
6

Here are some pros and cons that I can think of:

"The watchmen will reprimand you if he sees you"

Pros:

  • Communicating that social rules are enforced
  • Teaching that actions may have consequences
  • Convenient as you as a parent are not saying no

Cons:

  • Not communicating your own position on the matter (which means that the main message - that kicking is bad - is not communicated at all)
  • Indirectly communicating that it's ok to do that if no one sees the activity

"Because I say so"

This one translates to "because I have authority here"

Pros:

  • Convenient for the parent, since there is no need to think for a reason

Cons:

  • Will work in early age, but may backfire later during the teenage years, since parent's authority will be questioned then.
  • Does not teach much except for that one does not need to have a reason if they got power.
  • Undermines trust in relationships.

"Because I will beat you"

Pros:

  • Teaches the social hierarchy in an easy-to-understand way
  • Teaches that actions may have consequences
  • Convenient for the parent, since there is no need to think for a reason
  • Some kids (and adults, for that matter) just don't understand words - will work in such cases

Cons:

  • If used often will undermine trust
  • I wonder if those adults who don't understand plain words became like that simply because force was the only argument given to them when they were growing up

"Because other kids like you have right to ... and you should respect ..."

Pros:

  • Communicates your own position on the matter and the logic behind it as well as own position on related norms (mutual respect, sharing etc.)
  • Actually explains proper social norms
  • Builds trust by making a child "part of the crew" (essentially you are engaging in conversation with them)
  • Teaches to look for a reason behind things

Cons:

  • Skips the "actions may have consequences" part completely
  • Won't work with some kids / sometimes
1
  • 1
    I disagree a bit that the last option skips "actions may have consequences" (or at least, I disagree with it stated that simply). If done properly, one would naturally bring up consequences of their actions -- the statue may be broken or damaged, making it less useful for other people (and yourself) later and making other people disappointed. It does skip short-attention-span, think-only-of-myself consequences parts, but if you're attempting to build empathy and long-term thinking, that may actually be a benefit.
    – R.M.
    Jan 8 at 15:39
3

Have you thought about why you don't want your kid to vandalize things? No "authoritative" answer will be as convincing as your very own and authentic feelings and thoughts on the matter. Even "I don't want you to break it, because I like how it looks" will work better than any fake answer parroted from the internet. Kids have great BS sensors.

3
  • 1
    I think this is a reasonable answer. A 7-year-old might have trouble empathizing with generic "other children" and might have an easier time understanding if a specific person (their parent) would be sad if it was broken. Jan 8 at 16:49
  • 1
    Is it?. Playing devil's advocate, so, it's ok to break things if the parent doesn't like how it looks?. I feel @bobflux answer is closer to the truth. You don't break that because is not yours, if it were yours you could do whatever you want to do and then cope with the consecuences.
    – Fabman
    Jan 10 at 18:25
  • I'm not suggesting that particular answer, I'm suggesting that whichever answer OP actually beliefs in will be more convincing than a contrived answer from the internet. Children look to their parents for guidance, and they can tell if they actually speak from their heart and conviction or from a place of uncertainty and convention.
    – henning
    Jan 10 at 18:44
2

Dealing with this kind of thing starts at home.

What do you say/do when he kicks something at home? In my home there is an emphasis on looking after our possessions. "Don't throw that, you'll break it, and then you can't play with it anymore. We look after our possessions."

Emphasis on looking after our own things, because they are valuable and we work hard for what we have, and if they break we can't use them anymore, is a lesson taught at home with their own toys. We also model this behaviour by not throwing things or kicking things ourselves when angry, putting our own belongings away, and keeping things clean and properly maintained.

If my daughter behaves roughly with one of her toys, or throws it, it gets taken away for a significant period (at least several days), even if it is completely undamaged. This then can be extended to other people's things. Mama and papa's things, friends, and belongings of other people.

"Just like we look after our own things, and we must also look after other people's things too, and treat them like we would our own".

0
1

So yea there are some fairy tale answers here. I think they are thinking about this too deeply.

1st - it is a MAJOR issue if you kid wants to damage/vandalize random things. There is something wrong with him/her. Whether this is being upset about something, an issue that is not being dealt with or unstable discipline... the kid is lashing out. Let's not worry about blame but let's nip it.

2nd - vandalizing or kicking/hitting things is wrong. You don't need a dinosaur park to explain that. It simply isn't in the bag of things a kid that young should do.

3rd - you need to explain that first people don't do those things, at least good people don't. And you think your child is good. And you want them to be good. And you won't accept anything different.

4th - let your kid think about it. Ask them what they are thinking. Figure out what the motivation is.

5th - take their @ss home right away no matter what. Then spend time with them at home going over appropriate behavior. You don't discipline at dino park.

6th - I am happy to receive downvotes for adding this... if my kid acts out like that (and at least one of my kids has come sort of close)... a deep stare, a threat, and the hand of god should be raised. It is one thing for a kid to vandalize things like that. I mean its really bad. But to do so in front of you blatantly. Well there should always be 1% of a child scared of a parents discipline and yours is taunting you. If your kid has that amount of respect for you (which may not have to do with you personally) then what will happen to teachers, friends, coaches, and the law when they are older?

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  • 1
    I downvote for your 1st - there’s absolutely nothing „wrong“ with a child that is still learning about appropriate behavior. I don’t see „fairytale answers“ here, you may re-read the CoC and adjust your phrasing.
    – Stephie
    Jan 9 at 10:55
  • @stephie - thanks for the feedback! Very useful!
    – blankip
    Jan 9 at 19:13
1

Actually both (2) and (3) are almost as bad as (1) because they only can be applied if someone knows what they did wrong. The question you need to ask yourself is not "How do I correct behaviour X?" but rather "Why is behaviour X wrong?" and "Why should anyone share my judgement of right and wrong regarding X?".

And there is something to be said for why the same word "value" can refer both to moral principles as well as preciousness. Ask yourself why a certain moral principle is actually precious. If you cannot justify that, then whatever justification you attempt to give will be quite meaningless.

By the way, you don't need so-called authoritative material about this. Frankly it reeks of the same problem as your (1) to (3). Authority can be wrong. You don't need it here. All you need is a fuller introspection regarding moral values.

The best way to teach a child that is old enough to understand the concept of "harm" is to discuss with the child in simple terms the consequences of actions like "kicking the dinosaur". The child may not fully realize that it would (mildly) harm someone else. You can prompt such discussion by asking "If other kids who came here before you all kicked this dinosaur like you did, do you think it would be as nice for you to look at now?" or similar questions, posed at a level appropriate for the age of the child.

Some other answers mention that you may want to leverage the concept of ownership that children have. I am not convinced that it is the best way, because there are really many things with no clear ownership. It is better to teach a child about choices and consequences.

For older children, this also includes teaching the reason for consequences that other people may have to impose on people who cause harm to others, in order to stop them from causing harm. If that takes some kind of isolation, that's just a consequence of the bad choices. Of course, it must be done in a humane way, appropriate to the circumstances and age of the offender.

At the end of the day, reasoning about morality only works for those who want to engage in such reflection. Those who refuse to do so or perversely rationalize harmful behaviour must be isolated to protect those who do. It's just a necessity in our imperfect world. You can discuss this in more and more depth with children as they grow up, but ultimately they still have to make their own choices; there is no method that has any sort of guarantee on 'effectiveness'.

0
0

Let's go through these one at a time:

  1. "The watchmen will reprimand you if he sees you" - that implies that the only reason that you wouldn't do something like this is that you might get caught. So, in the future, will he avoid doing stuff like that, or will he only be careful not to get caught?
  2. "Because I say so" - not very convincing, and not really an answer to the question. Besides, do you really want him to avoid it merely because you told him to, or do you want him to avoid doing it because he understands that it's wrong?
  3. "Because I will beat you" - same problem as #1. If fear of punishment is the main reason not to do this, there's no particular reason not to do this if he won't get caught. So again, the takeaway is "make sure that you don't get caught."
  4. "Because other kids like you have right to ... and you should respect ..." This is technically true, but I'm not sure that this is complete. Yes, he should have an abstract understanding that this is wrong, but is that the only reason that he shouldn't do it?

That being said, let me propose a fifth possibility: help him to empathize with the other kids. In particular, if he understands how the other kids would feel if the sculpture got damaged, that's really the best situation.

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